As of January 2021, The National Restaurant Association (you know, the other NRA) was reporting that more than 17% of restaurants in the United States had either temporarily or permanently closed their doors since the onset of the pandemic. This represented a loss of approximately 2.5 million jobs and $240 billion for the dining industry. As restrictions lifted and establishments began to regain their footing, the numbers shifted to a still-devastating 79,500 permanent closures, or about 10.2% of existing restaurants.

While food trucks were hit the hardest, and established restaurants had a slight advantage over those that were greener on the scene, the pandemic didn’t discriminate about casting its pall over establishments of any age or size. Delivery services swooped in to save the day, but at a cost that was sinking restaurants faster than they could swim.

Soon, drive-throughs were erected, online ordering was launched, menus were restructured, and a few restaurants even found ways of redistributing out-of-work waitstaff as delivery personnel. Locally, a movement was enacted empowering restaurant owners to launch their own ethical delivery service, and Omaha LoCo Delivery was born.

While the numbers seem to have plateaued, the problems haven’t subsided for those in the industry. Staffing has become an issue, as many people are hesitant to return to low-paying, high-stress jobs where their titles shift quickly between “essential worker” to “I expect this meal to be comped.”

Meanwhile, food supply chain issues are doing their part to create ingredient shortages and add to skyrocketing prices.

WD Cravings

When the pandemic threatened their dream, it brought out the fight in this team. The power couple of Piero Cotrina and Wendy Delgado are serving sweet treats and house made pasta at WD Cravings. Photo credit Nat Ogura for The Reader

In spite of these ever-mounting odds, a few innovators stepped on the scene in the midst of the pandemic chaos, nimble and ready to battle. Some relied on the traffic of social halls to attract a loyal customer base, which has worked well for spots like Dirty Bird and the food trucks that frequent Trucks and Taps. Others had to find a different hook to make dining out work while stuck inside.

Among those brave enough to launch a new dream in 2020 was Omaha culinary star Piero Cotrina and his wife, Wendy Delgado, with their offering, WD Cravings: An American Patisserie, at 7110 N. 102nd Circle.

The couple boasts professional and cultural culinary expertise in French, Italian, Peruvian and Mexican cuisine. It may seem that opening their own eatery would be a no-brainer, but their March 2020 grand opening was never their Plan A.

The pair met in New York when Delgado was baking in acclaimed restaurants like Parm and the infamous and now COVID-closed patisserie Financier Patisserie. Cotrina was making his rounds in New York’s kitchens and was struck both by Delgado’s talent and her smile. After another stint in Omaha at Via Farina, Cotrina returned to New York for an internship at Stash. This time, he decided to take a chance on convincing Delgado to return to Omaha with him.

“I was always telling her about the quality of life in Omaha. I’ve lived all over — Colorado, Florida, New York, California — but there wasn’t a community anywhere else like Omaha. The cost of living, the work opportunities and just the people. We are so lucky to have the people we have in Omaha, and the way everyone is so ready to help each other. You can build relationships, and those people will really care about you.”

Cotrina’s endorsement won Delgado over, and two weeks later the pair sold her car and drove to Nebraska together to start their new lives. Soon after, Cotrina and Delgado had found work at Avoli and Dario’s, respectively, and were enjoying a weekend visit to the Omaha Farmers Market when inspiration struck.

“Wendy was so happy at the farmers market; she kept talking about how nice it was, how beautiful. And just like that we looked at each other, and I told her I thought she could sell her pastries there. The seed
was planted right then. We thought about it for a little while, but she really pushed us along and soon we were doing our due diligence and getting our license. Our first farmers market was in 2018, and we sold out in about an hour. I knew her pastries were really special, but that was the moment we knew we had something.”

From whimsical treats to elegant sweets, Wendy Delgado has an eye for art and a palate for perfection in the patisserie she shares with her husband, Piero Cotrina. Photo credit Nat Ogura for The Reader

Their experience at the farmers market bolstered the pair’s confidence in launching a new venture of their own. They set out to find a space to open a patisserie where they planned to sell Delgado’s delicacies and scheduled WD Craving’s grand opening for May 8, 2020.

When the World Closed, WD Cravings Opened

As COVID-19 loomed over their plans, the pair bucked what many would consider the intuitive move to pause their grand opening. Instead, they adapted to a more full-service, catering-style menu, offering family meals beside Delgado’s selection of sweets and treats.

“The pandemic certainly caught us off guard,” Cotrina said. “It’s like trying to play soccer without a ball. I know this game; I’ve been cooking for 15 years. I’ve worked in fine dining restaurants, busy restaurants. I know how to play with so many challenges, but now you have to earn money without having guests. We were thinking ‘What are we going to do?’ All of this happened and it’s been a miracle that we found a way to stay open.”

Cotrina applied his wealth of knowledge and unique capacity for adapting to change and developed a very focused but heartfelt menu. While Delgado’s pastries and breakfast sandwiches are still the star,

Cotrina’s menu of scratch-made pastas and sauces have pulled their weight to earn the restaurant a fevered fan base.

Recipe for Success

It’s easy to draw a line from Cotrina’s approach to cooking to his positive perspective on rolling with the punches.

From-scratch sauces are a labor of love for Cotrina, whose menu also includes pastas made fresh daily in-house. Photo credit Nat Ogura for The Reader.

“I really see a recipe like a GPS,” he said. “It can tell you where to go and how to get there, but there might be construction or you might have to make a detour. Even if something is telling you the way, you still have to make decisions and get yourself there. You still have to be the one driving.”

“Even if you’ve made it a hundred times, you need to taste it and trust yourself to make changes if something isn’t right. If you’re going to be proud of what you’re putting out, you’re going to have to find your way to get there every time, with every plate.”

And in spite of knowing the directions for opening a successful establishment, Cotrina and Delgado were able to use their intuition when a pandemic changed their planned route.

Looking Ahead

As sourcing ingredients from alternative milks to meats is becoming more difficult, Cotrina and Delgado are sticking with what has gotten them this far: faith.

“Prices for meat, for chicken, it’s gone up over $1.50 a pound so far,” Cotrina said. “We know it’s going to plateau and come back down eventually, but not everyone is going to be able to adjust their menu to not feature ingredients they can’t get for a good price.”

“I know a lot of people are looking at whether to raise their prices or just take things off of their menus. I think all you can really do is be honest with your customers. Explain to them that the cost has gone up, that the price of staying in business has gone up.”

Cotrina’s trust in the Omaha dining community isn’t unfounded. The relationships customers have built with restaurant owners and staff have created a unique dynamic of respect and understanding, one that many establishments are hoping continues into this next phase of reopening.

“Restaurants are run by people,” Cotrina said. “We are people and we are businesses, and in both ways we have been affected by what has gone on in the world and in our city. We have our struggles, and just a couple of words of honesty for people explaining why a recipe or a price has changed helps keep that trust we’ve built. If people can’t trust you, that’s no way to do business.”

Edge of The Universe

 A sweet treat anyone can eat, desserts at Edge of the Universe are thoughtfully made to be as inclusive as the atmosphere.

Rachel Evans chose not only to open a business during an unprecedented time, but to create a truly unique, whimsical experience that gives back. The process of getting there would have taken most of us to the edge of insanity; but for the cheerful and determined Evans, the work serves as a testament of her commitment to her community. In an industry with razor-thin margins being dealt a once-in-a-
generation blow, Evans and her life-and-business partner, Adam Van Osdel, still felt there was room to educate, celebrate and be compassionate.

The pair have been responsible for fairy-tale daydreams long before launching their latest Benson effort. Evans is a former events coordinator for the Omaha Children’s Museum, where Van Osdel carved and built many of the scenes and characters that turned an educational facility into a world of wonder for Omaha’s children.

While the pair put in the legwork, paperwork and construction work to make their dream work, their plans to open Edge of the Universe in early 2020 were put on a pandemic pause. After funding half of the venture out of pocket and launching an Indiegogo campaign to raise the rest, the duo began the arduous process of gutting the space at 6070 Maple in March 2020.

A Fever Dream

“At that time, COVID wasn’t really a thing here,” Evans recalled. “We were aware of it, but not worried. We were pushing ahead with contractors and construction. Then suddenly, in just a couple of weeks we realized that it was going to get bad really quick.”

As hints of trouble quickly turned to mandates and regulations, renovations had to be carefully navigated to maintain movement on the new venture.

“Usually when renovating, you’ll have all of your teams in at once,” Evans said. “You’ll have your electricians and plumbers and drywall team and flooring. But we wanted to make sure all of the workers were safe, so we only had one crew in at a time.

“If you’ve ever worked with a contractor, you know that it’s not that simple. They’ll be in one day and then gone for six. Most of the people in the city were working out of their homes and only visiting sites for inspections one day a week, so we had to wait, sometimes for weeks.”

Funding the venture went from a tightly planned budget to a delay-fueled nightmare for the couple, with Evans explaining, “We had to keep paying our rent and utilities and bills on time as our opening pushed back more and more, but we didn’t qualify for any of the small business programs. They were based on your income from the previous year, but our business hadn’t been established in 2019.”

Add a Little Magic

In the months of setbacks and tortured decisions, there wasn’t a magic moment that made finally hosting their June-planned opening in October an OK twist on their fairy tale. Instead, there were the pair’s friends and family cheering for them, advertising for them, and encouraging them along the way.

And now, there’s you.

“When Adam and I first told people what our plans were for Edge of the Universe, I would get this beautiful blank stare. But we kept telling them ‘Just wait! It’s going to make sense!’ Our mission statement is ‘Stupid Fun,’ but we take this so seriously. Soon, people started to see what we were doing and that it wasn’t just something there was space for, but something that was needed.”

In a time when mental health is at a low point, isolation and loneliness are at their peak, and social media is saturated with adults asking how to make friends at this age or stage in their life, Evans has an answer. Everything from the architecture to the planned activities are designed to encourage inspiration and connection.

Edge of the Universe may have the whimsy to bring out your inner child, but it also features a very grown-up menu of cocktails and boozy milkshakes

“I’ve moved around most of my life, so I definitely know that struggle,” Evans said. “First, you have to just be yourself. We’ve really created a space where no matter who you are, this is a safe place for you to just let it out and relax. Everyone here is so friendly and warm and welcoming! Couples, girls’ nights, families showing up in costumes or ball gowns. Other people sitting beside them in jeans. Absolutely
come as you are or how you want to be. Come alone to one of our trivia nights and just say hi to us at the bar. We have structured the place so you feel good sitting alone, sitting in a private nook with your friends or even at a table with strangers you’ve found something in common with. You’re going to make friends just being here!”

Eat, Drink and Be Weird

The establishment’s whimsical themes change regularly, as does the nonprofit Evans and Van Osdel choose to donate a portion of their profits to, but the mission remains the same: a safe place to feed the body, soul and inner child.

“There’s nothing wrong with being kitschy, but it’s kind of superficial,” Evans said. “It’s kind of the difference between eating candy and having a full meal. We wanted to offer people a place that was nutritious, fun, satisfying and rich.”

“The themes, games and decorations are all really thought out. Even the flower garlands we’ve hung across the ceiling, some took three or four days to make. We spent months working nonstop to make exactly what we wanted, and when we have people telling us what a magical experience this is for them, we know we’ve done exactly what we set out to do.”

But the immersive and enchanted experiences aren’t the only way to feed your inner child at Edge of the Universe. Evans has created a full menu of creative cocktails, coffees, boozy shakes, hot chocolates, charcuterie and baked goods anyone can enjoy.

The Edge of Elegance. Snacks are serious business in this silly world, and no expense spared to ensure an unforgettable experience.

“Sourcing oat milk has been a nightmare, but any time I see it I grab as many as I can!” Evans said. “It’s so important to us to be careful of people’s food allergies and preferences. Almost all of our baked goods are vegan and gluten-free; any drink we offer we can make it vegan or allergen-free. It’s extra work, but it’s absolutely worth it to have people know that we are always doing our best to be inclusive.”

It took a great deal of courage for Evans and Van Osdel to put it all on the line for a fairy tale, but sometimes a happily ever after is called for. And when a villain as diabolical as 2020 comes along, you can count on this couple to go the extra mile to make dreams come true, day after day.

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